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Joy in the Morning

Sermon - 2/12/06
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Psalm 30

The Psalm for this morning is Psalm 30, as we continue to look at the Psalms in the season of epiphany.

One word of explanation I want to give first about a couple of terms that appear in this Psalm.  "Sheol" and "the Pit".  Particularly the latter, because Oregon basketball fans of course when they hear 'the Pit' think of McArthur Court with its lively, screaming crowds.  Although for men's basketball teams it's been more of a place of doom lately.  Although they did win yesterday, on the road, in the desert.  But the women are keeping the winning streak alive with 4 wins in a row there in 'the Pit', an incredible performance on Thursday night against Arizona.

But the Pit here in Psalm 30 is not that kind of pit.  It's indeed the opposite of that -- instead of a place of life and victory and celebration, it is the place of death.  And you should not hear, when you read in Old Testament scriptures, Sheol or the Pit, you should not think of our image of Hell.  Because Sheol was not the place of eternal torment in Hebrew thought (a place of suffering), but rather it's simply the place of eternal nothingness.  It's where the dead go and cease to be altogether.

So here, then, the 30th Psalm:

1I will extol you, O Lord, for you have drawn me up,
   and did not let my foes rejoice over me.
2O Lord my God, I cried to you for help,
   and you have healed me.
3O Lord, you brought up my soul from Sheol,
   restored me to life from among those gone down to the Pit.

4Sing praises to the Lord, O you his faithful ones,
   and give thanks to his holy name.
5For his anger is but for a moment;
   his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.

6As for me, I said in my prosperity,
   ‘I shall never be moved.’
7By your favour, O Lord,
   you had established me as a strong mountain;
you hid your face;
   I was dismayed.

8To you, O Lord, I cried,
   and to the Lord I made supplication:
9‘What profit is there in my death,
   if I go down to the Pit?
Will the dust praise you?
   Will it tell of your faithfulness?
10Hear, O Lord, and be gracious to me!
   O Lord, be my helper!’

11You have turned my mourning into dancing;
   you have taken off my sackcloth
   and clothed me with joy,
12so that my soul may praise you and not be silent.
   O Lord my God, I will give thanks to you for ever.

 

Many of the things that I treasure so much in the Christian faith are presented here in this Psalm.  The emphasis on transformation, and joy, the celebration of the good things in life, and the goodness of God.  Here again, verse 5 that I think speaks volumes about the character of the God we worship:

5For his anger is but for a moment;
   his favour is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
   but joy comes with the morning.

How many people need to hear that good news?

At the Interfaith service last night, here, Ibrahim Hamide, who is one of the prominent Muslim leaders of our community, owner/operator of Cafe Soriah, and a good friend, opened the service by inviting people to reflect on their personal stories and their sacred stories.  The stories that shape us and who we are.  And so they shared throughout the evening various sacred stories of faith that have been important to many people.  

And I think of how many of our sacred stories in our tradition reflect the theme of this Psalm this morning.  The theme of turning mourning into dancing.  And turning night into morning.  And so we go from mourning to morning, so to speak.  From death to life.  From night to day.

And so many of our stories reflect that kind of theme.  The central stories of the two Testaments, the Exodus story in the first Testament, the Easter story in the second Testament, are stories of that kind of transformation from death to life.  From grief and suffering to joy and celebration.  As are so many of the other stories of our Bible -- the birth of Isaac to Abraham and Sarah in their old age.  Joseph, sold into slavery by his brothers and then they reunite years later and is reunited with his father at a joyful celebration and he is the means of redemption for his family, providing for their sustenance in a time of famine.  Ezekiel's vision of the valley of dry bones brought back to life that becomes the symbol of the hope of the nation of new life at a time when they were in captivity and good as dead.  The many healing stories of the gospels, where Jesus heals the leper and tells him to keep silent about it but he can't contain himself, so filled with joy, that he has to go out and tell everyone.  The Centurion servant girl, and Lazarus raised back to life by Jesus.  The story that Jesus tells of the prodigal son who comes back to his father and the father says 'This son of mine was dead, and is alive again, he was lost, and is found'.  And then of course throws a big party for him. 

This is the central image of our faith, this celebration, this transformation, the divine reversal from death to life, from grief to joy, from weeping to laughter, and so on.

And so we give praise to the Lord, for the one we worship is the one who brings joy in the morning and therefore we need not fear the night.  Indeed, we can embrace the night, we can welcome the darkness.  Because we know that joy comes in the morning.  We do not look for grief.  We do not seek suffering.  But neither do we run from it, or deny it.  For no matter what else befalls us, we know that joy comes in the morning.

And remember the 23rd Psalm -- 'even though we walk through the valley of the shadow of death' -- we do not walk around it, we do not go over it, we do not bypass it, we walk through it.  And we shall not fear, for we know that joy comes in the morning.

The point here is not that I think that God will reverse every tragedy in our lives or heal every sickness.  Because if you stop to think about it, you may have nine or ten diseases in your life (you may have 100), but the last one is going to get you.  We all have to die of something.  So it's not the case that we can count on some magic from God -- you know, go ahead and handle those snakes, live dangerously, die fast, and die soon.  Because there's no guarantee, there's no magic that protects us.

But in God we can find healing even when we cannot find a cure.  We can find peace even when there is war all around us.  We can find life even when we face death.  When we trust in that presence, when we put our faith in that power, the result can be and often is miraculous.

And I want to share two stories this morning.  One a personal story (though not my own), and the other is the story of a people.

Friday at City Club of Eugene, we heard from Sharon Chamberlain, who is the program director for the needle exchange program at HIV Alliance.  And she shared with us the importance of providing a non-judgmental place for addicts, where they can come and find help and hope.  And her story was a very personal one, because she began shooting heroin at the age of 16.  And it nearly destroyed her life.  And she said she wanted desperately to stop, but it took her 7 times.  Seven efforts of checking into clinics and seeking help from various sources.  Fortunately she had lots of support from her family that would not give up on her.  But six of those times she went back to the old habit -- the power of the drug was simply too great.  And not until that final and seventh time did it stick for good.  And now she is once again a productive citizen and loving mother of two young children, and is giving back to her community through the work at HIV Alliance.

The first affirmation, many people know, of 12-step programs (helping people with their addictions) is to admit that you are powerless over the drug -- alcohol, narcotics, whatever it may be.  And secondly to recognize that there is a higher power in our world and in our lives.  And so third, to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God, however we understand that higher power to be.  And anyone who has been in a 12-step program knows the power of that working spirit and what a difference it can make.

It is relying on that power, the way of God, that has made transformation possible for millions of people like Sharon.  Over 100,000 AA (Alcoholics Anonymous) and NA (Narcotics Anonymous) groups across the country and around the world in 150 different countries.  People who have turned the long night of addition into the joy of God's morning.

The second story that I want to share with you is the story of a people.  It comes from Martin Luther King Jr.  In our Thursday morning group, the spiritual formation group of which I've been a part for 7 or 8 years, we read the passage for the coming Sunday as part of our devotion.  And Michael Kennedy opened up his Bible, and there, next to Psalm 30, was a devotional insert that told the story of the end of the Montgomery bus boycott.

I think it's an especially appropriate story for us to recall this morning in light of the recent death of Coretta Scott King, and just a few weeks or months before of Rosa Parks, of course the woman who started that boycott (in essence) 50 years ago.

But before I share this story that Michael had in his Bible, I need to share a little bit about the background of the boycott, otherwise it's a little like going to Easter without ever stopping to observe Good Friday.  And it's a very powerful story that I think we need to remember.  It was on December 1st, 1955, that Rosa Parks boarded that bus -- the Cleveland Avenue bus that still exists in a civil rights museum.  Just out of curiosity -- how many of you remember that boycott, remember the stories coming out of Montgomery?  [Several hands go up in the congregation]  I just wanted to point out I was 10 months old when it started J.  Gotcha!

It has become for me an incredibly powerful story of faith even though I have no personal memory of it.  Rosa Parks sat down in the seat, the very first seat behind the "Whites Only" section of the bus.  But a couple of stops later, the bus driver ordered her and 3 others to move to the back of the bus to make room for the white passengers who had just boarded.  The other 3 complied, went and stood in the back.  Rosa, after a long day's work, tired, seeing that she would have to stand to give up her seat to a white male, said "no".  Reminds me of Henry Thoreau's essay on civil disobedience, who says:  "There comes a time when we have to say 'no' to the evil systems of our world".  Whether it was that or simply just being tired, whatever the case was, she simply said no.  And so she was arrested and booked into jail. 

Martin Luther King Jr., who had become the Pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church in Montgomery just the year before (fresh out of seminary) learned of her arrest the next morning, and he and a couple other Pastors began planning a boycott and held a public meeting that night which was a Friday, with folk from their churches.  And they agreed to begin a boycott the following Monday, and to hold another meeting that Monday night to decide how long to continue the protests.  Now King hoped that they would have 60% participation from the black community, to send their message.  His wife was excited in the morning, she called him:  "Martin, come quick, come look!"  As the bus moved through their black neighborhood and not a single person was on it.  Indeed, the participation was 99% as the buses found almost no one willing to ride from the black neighborhoods.

At the packed church that Monday evening, King was elected to lead the newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association to further organize the boycott.  Sixteen black-owned taxi companies volunteered their services to help out until city authorities reminded them that they had a legal obligation to charge their passengers a minimum amount that had been determined by the city.  He told the full house that night that there would be no violence, that there would be no hooded mobs of black men who would take a white person from their home and beat them to death.  No crosses burning on lawns.  No threats of intimidation.  He said:  "Our method will be that of persuasive non-coercion.  Our actions must be guided by the deepest principles of our Christian faith.  Love must be our regulating ideal".  And then he concluded with these words:  "If you will protest courageously and yet with dignity and Christian love, when the history books are written, the historians will have to pause and say 'there lived a great people, a black people, who injected new meaning and dignity into the veins of civilization'".

And as he sat down, the crowd rose to their feet to thunderous applause, and King noted later that he had had little time to prepare for that night, and instead it was, as older preachers had told him, 'open your mouth and God will speak for you'.  And I think it is important for us to know, because I'm not sure the history books capture this sufficiently, that the boycott was initiated and led by the black church.  Led by the spirit of God.  King wrote:  "It was Jesus of Nazareth that stirred the Negroes to protest with the creative weapon of love".

Organizing a boycott of this magnitude was much more complicated than you might think.  It's more than just saying "Don't ride the buses".  There were over 17,000 black citizens of Montgomery who depended on those buses to get to work.  And that meant that there were a whole lot of white employers who depended as well on those buses for their employees to get to work.  And one of the ironies of the boycott was that hundreds of white women could be seen (women who were not willing to give up their domestic workers who came to clean their homes) driving around their black maids sitting in the back of their cars through Montgomery.  An ironic twist of the typical scene.  Getting all those workers to their jobs was an enormous organizational task and once again the black churches stepped up to the challenge and made it happen through volunteers and carpools.  The ministers ended up chauffeuring many of the members of their congregations to help them get to work.

The newly formed Montgomery Improvement Association, with the donations that came from across the country and even across the world, hired staff to assist them in that task.  But just the task of finding an office to operate out of proved to be difficult.  They were evicted four times from the spaces they rented as pressure was applied by the white business owners and civic leaders to the landlords.  Meetings were held every week, always in the church, to provide encouragement, training, and organization.  And almost always to standing room only crowds.  And at every meeting they heard scripture read and they sang hymns.  King continued to remind audiences that their goal was not to defeat or humiliate whites but to win their friendship and understanding.

One story that I especially like that reveals this spirit and spunk of the boycotters:  there was one old domestic servant and influential matriarch of many young relatives in Montgomery, who was asked by her wealthy employer -- "Isn't this bus boycott terrible?"  The old lady responded:  "Yes Maam, it sure is.  And I just told all my youngin's that this kind of thing is white folk business and we just better stay off the buses until they get this whole thing settled".

As the boycott approached 1 year, the stakes were dramatically raised when the insurance companies canceled the polices of the vehicles used in the carpools.  And the carpools themselves were banned -- were made illegal by the city council of Montgomery.  It appeared to the leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association that they would either have to ask their people to walk the long distance from the communities where they lived to the places where they worked, or they would have to give up the boycott. 

On November 12th, King said in the weekly meeting that night:  "This may well be the darkest hour just before dawn.  We have moved all of these months with the daring faith that God was with us in our struggle.  We must believe that a way will be made out of no way".  But the mood that night was very pessimistic.  People sensed the boycott was about to fail.  King said the night was darker than a thousand midnights.  Hope was fading.  The lamp of faith was about to go out.

The next day, he and leaders of the Montgomery Improvement Association appeared in court on charges brought against them for the damages caused by the boycott, and for the public nuisance they had created with their carpools.  It was a court with a long history of discrimination against their members.  And King had no reason to believe that this day would be any different.  But as the court broke for lunch, an Associated Press reporter came running up to King quite excitedly and handed him a press release.  Reading with a mixture of anxiety and hope, King read these words:  

"The United States Supreme Court today affirmed the decision of a special U.S. District Court, in declaring Alabama state and local laws requiring segregation on buses unconstitutional".

And he wrote:  "At this moment my heart began to throb with an inexpressible joy.  The darkest hour of our struggle had indeed proved to be the first hour of victory".

Soon, word spread to the whole courtroom and the voice of one joyful bystander rang out:  "God almighty has spoken from Washington D.C.!".  How we long to hear that voice.

Much more of the story needs to be told, but time does not allow it this morning, of the violence that followed, as angry white mobs responded to the news.  Houses and churches of the black leaders were bombed and burned.  But the spirit of non-violence and Christian love that guided the boycott is still very much alive today, as is evident in the Pastor of a rural black church, not too far from Montgomery, that was burned to the ground just a few weeks ago.  And he said on NPR this morning:  "We will pray for the perpetrators of this heinous crime, and we will, in the spirit of Christ, love them".

The desegregation order arrived in Montgomery on December 20th, 1956.  That night, as you will note, the longest night of the year before the Winter solstice, was the last night of the boycott.  King told the gathered throng:  "These 12 months have not been easy.  Our feet have often been tired.  We have struggled against tremendous odds to maintain alternative transportation.  We can remember days when unfavorable court decisions came upon us like tidal waves, leaving us treading the waters of despair.  But amid all of this we have kept going with the faith that as we struggle, God struggles with us.  And that the arc of the moral universe, although long, is bending toward justice.  We have lived under the agony and darkness of Good Friday with a conviction that one day, the heightened glow of Easter would emerge on the horizon.  We have truth crucified and goodness buried but we have kept going with the conviction that truth crushed to earth will rise again.  As we go back to the buses let us be loving enough to turn an enemy into a friend.  We must now move from protest to reconciliation.  It is my firm conviction that God is working in Montgomery.  That all people of goodwill, both Negro and white, continue to work with him.  With this dedication we will be able to emerge from the bleak and desolate midnight of man's inhumanity to man, to the bright and glittering daybreak of freedom and justice".

The next morning, two ministers were assigned to every bus line in Montgomery.  And at 6:00 a.m. on December 21st, 1956, a bus stopped in front of the King home.  The door opened.  The driver said with a cordial smile:  "I believe you are the Reverend King, aren't you?"  King replied:  "Yes I am".  The driver said:  "We are glad to have you this morning".

And so it is with God, after the long and difficult night, joy comes with the morning.  May it be.

 


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